Buffalo, NY is just over 230 kilometres away from London, ON — but the distance between the OHL and the NHL is far greater. But when the Buffalo Sabres decided to return 6’5 blueliner Nikita Zadorov to the junior league’s Knights, London’s dreams of a Memorial Cup win just got a whole lot closer to reality.
For Zadorov, the sting of being such a late cut from the NHL has been tempered by his affection for London and its hometown Knights.
“It’s hard. For sure I want to play in the best league in the world, but you just have to keep going and keep working,” he said. “I’m happy because I’m back here in London — it’s probably one of the best places to play junior hockey. I like London a lot, everybody here in the organization and the fans. I’m happy to play here.
“You know, you just have to try to win every game, go and try to win the Memorial Cup, and everything’s going to be fine coming back next year in Buffalo.”
Zadorov was drafted with the 16th overall pick in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. He broke camp with the Sabres and remained with the team for over a quarter of the NHL regular season. He appeared in seven games, registering a goal and a respectable -4 rating for a team that was 5-17-1 while he was there. The Russian defender suffered a hand injury during the exhibition season, which delayed his NHL debut.
While he performed ably enough in his NHL action, he also found himself a healthy scratch on occasion. In the wake of the Sabres’ reorganization, which saw Ted Nolan and Pat Lafontaine installed as interim Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations, respectively, the Sabres' nascent youth movement was cut short, and Zadorov was amongst four young players sent back to the minor leagues on Nov. 19th.
Just two days later, Zadorov suited up for Team Russia in the Subway Super Series contest against the OHL; one day after that, he was preparing to make his much-anticipated debut with the London Knights against the Erie Otters. It was a bit of a shock to the system for Zadorov, who has had the luxury of playing for one of the OHL’s most stable franchises in terms of personnel.
“It was different. Everything is different. Here we’re just kids and [in the NHL] it’s older guys,” he said. “It’s hard, one guy had a job and then a second guy comes in and everything changes. New coaches in one day.
“I don’t know, I just try to play hard and do my best. I’m not mad anymore, I’m just going to try and do my best and be a leader.”
Zadorov was one of two huge blueline pieces that the Knights were hoping to use to complete their Memorial Cup puzzle. Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that 19-year-old Olli Maatta would remain in the NHL. The Knights, eventually, replaced Maatta’s import slot with German defenseman Tim Bender. Zadorov’s spot, however, remained unfilled — and the Russian blueliner both noticed and appreciated it.
“I feel great. I’m not mad. I’m not mad at Buffalo. It was a great experience for me,” he said. “[Dale and Mark Hunter] told me that now you’re here, just do your best. They waited for me for so long and I’m happy they did that.”
But before he could pull on the green and gold, he took the opportunity to don his home-country colors. Zadorov returned to the OHL in grand style, finishing with three assists in the Nov. 21st Subway Super Series game, his first junior action since being drafted by the Sabres.
“The Ontario Hockey League is the best junior hockey league in the world, so it’s great to play well against those guys,” he said. “A few of those guys will be at the World Junior Championship representing Canada.
“A lot of my friends are on that team and I love playing for my country. I’ll play [for Russia] any time. This year will be great trying for the World Junior Championship and the Memorial Cup.”
And playing against some familiar faces was fun as well, Zadorov added.
“I think I tried to give a hard time to Max [Domi] — I tried to hit him hard a couple of times,” he said. “But as a bigger player it’s hard to hit him. We’re all good friends and it’s always fun to play against teammates.”
Zadorov said his Team Russia coach, Mikhail Varnakov, took him aside prior to the start of the Super Series game to let him know what to expect.
“Before the game, he told me that because you’re a guy from the NHL, everybody’s going to try to beat you,” Zadorov explained. “He said just play my game, play hard, and be a leader on the team. I think I did a pretty good job.”
It’s something the 18-year-old Muscovite said he thinks he may have to get used to early on in his return to the OHL.
“We’ll see tonight. I don’t know, maybe?” he said. “I think everybody’s going to want to play hard against me. They’ll say, ‘It’s the guy from the NHL coming back, let’s try to beat him.’”
But what these OHL opponents will face is a defender who proved that he has a place in the NHL — a player who returns to the league ready, willing, and able to make a difference and armed with improved knowledge and experience.
“My conditioning is perfect. It’s hard work in the NHL, so much harder than here. Everyday you have to work out and I had the opportunity to play in the NHL, sometimes 20 minutes in a game,” Zadorov explained, adding that even his injury afforded him a new perspective and more information.
“I learned a lot watching when I was injured,” he said. “When you watch guys like [Erik] Karlsson or Drew Doughty or [Ryan] Suter, you’re watching the best defensemen in the world.
“It was a good experience watching upstairs and you can try to learn what they’re doing in the game and then try to do it in practice and in the games.”
His Buffalo teammates were quick to send messages of encouragement to the blueliner once his demotion was announced.
“They all told me to keep my head up, go play hockey, and that I’m going to be a good player,” he said “Just keep working hard and everything is going to be great. It was a great experience.”
Zadorov is hoping to pull on the Team Russia sweater again this year at the U20 World Junior Championship. Last year, he was the last player cut — and while he said he’s received no assurances he’ll be on the squad, he’s determined to show that he belongs.
“Being the last cut last year, that was not really a good time for me at all,” he said. “This is a new year and I’m going to try my best but you never know.”
And while he’s happy to play for Team Russia, despite being drafted fourth overall in the 2012 KHL Junior Draft by his hometown CKSA squad (the former Red Army club), playing at home is not on his radar.
“Sometimes I watched and checked stats, but not anymore,” he said. “My team’s here and I want to play in North America.
“I want to play in the NHL, the best league in the world.”
To make that happen, Zadorov said he knows what he needs to improve upon — everything. But if he’s successful, he hopes to make a permanent home just over 200 kilometres away from London in the not-too-distant future.
“I need to improve on everything. I need to work on my shot, on my skating, on my physical game — everything,” he said. “I have to improve everything if I want to be in the NHL next year and be a leader there.”